Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 2 of 18
Belgium has a mixed health care system managed by third-party health insurance associations.
The treatment of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) patients in Belgium falls under the public
insurance system; however patients are responsible for small copayments on drugs and
transportation. Reimbursement is based on fixed fee schedules negotiated annually by the
national social security system and providers, but recent limits on reimbursement threaten the
ability of physicians to treat the rapidly increasing number of ESRD patients. Dialysis is
increasingly provided in satellite units, which have lower operating costs and are often much
more convenient for patients. This paper describes the current organization of ESRD care in
Belgium, with a focus on the impact of financing and reimbursement issues.
Belgium consists of two geographic and cultural regions: Flanders and Wallonia. Flanders, in the
northern half of the country, is predominantly Dutch (Flemish) speaking, and Wallonia, in the
South, is mostly French speaking. The two regions are different economically: With a 2002 per
capita gross domestic product (GDP) of €18,671 (US$21,145; PPP 2002) in the South, Walloons
earned a third less than Flemish Belgians (€25,329 or US$28,685 (PPP) per capita)
(Kenniscentrum statistiek, 2005). In addition, the two regions maintain separate renal registries.
The International Study of Health Care Organization and Financing (ISHCOF) is a substudy of
the Dialysis Outcomes and Practice Patterns Study (DOPPS) aiming to characterize economic
structures and their impact on the delivery of dialysis care. The ISHCOF is based primarily on
one-time commissioned surveys (2004–2005) and subsequent papers by authors from each of the
12 DOPPS countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand,
Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Details of the methods are described
in Dor, Pauly, Eichleay, and Held (2007).
The data in this report are based on secondary sources including the Dutch-speaking Society of
Nephrology (NBVN, 2002), the French-speaking Belgian Society of Nephrology (GNFB, 2001,
2002), the Belgium Federal Portal (the official Belgian government website
[http://www.belgium.be/eportal/index.jsp]), and published articles. Epidemiologic rates
presented for Belgium in this paper were calculated from gross figures reported in the two
separate registries, French and Dutch speaking. All monetary estimates were provided in national
currency units and converted to U.S. dollars with OECD purchasing power parities (PPP) from
the year of each figure (OECD, 2006). Most data in this study were for the year 2001; therefore,
Belgian Euro data were divided by 0.899 to convert to US dollars. Due to the small number of
economic investigators and countries in this study, all international comparisons reported here
are informal and qualitative, unless otherwise noted.
To estimate the annual expenditure per ESRD patient in Belgium we used the distribution of
patients among the various modalities as described in the registries and costs obtained from a
study of patients at the University Hospital Ghent (personal unpublished data, Raymond
Vanholder, University Hospital Ghent, 2001). We assumed that 10% of patients are transplanted
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 3 of 18
in a given year and that a transplant recipient obtains a kidney in the middle of the year thereby
incurring dialysis costs for the first half year and transplant costs for the second half of the year.
Health care in Belgium
The Belgian social security and health care systems consist of a mix of private and public
players. All Belgian citizens who are employed, who are related to an employed person (e.g.,
children or non-working spouses), or who are supported by a replacement income, such as
unemployment payments, are covered by health insurance. In practice, all persons who have an
official residence in Belgium can be covered. Even non-citizens, such as official refugees, can
obtain coverage. For foreigners (mostly Dutch) who have social security in their country of
origin, there is an agreement between the social security system in the country of origin and the
Belgian system, and the Belgian social security system gets its expenses reimbursed.
The health insurance system is funded by employer and employee contributions. These
compulsory, pre-defined taxes are paid to the government in addition to income taxes. Health
insurance associations, also known as “sick funds” or “mutualities,” manage these contributions
for the government. Although the sick funds are independent from the government, they are
strongly connected to political parties and, in some cases, are also related to providers of medical
care (hospitals and nursing homes). People tend to join the sick fund of their political preference:
The three main players are the Catholic, the socialist, and the classic liberal (i.e. “market
oriented”) funds. The mutualities take care of the reimbursement of medical expenses through a
third-party payer system. In practice, for most medical expenses, the patient only pays a small
amount, the “demotivation” fee (copayment). Health care providers bill each patient’s health
insurance association, which then bills the social security system for the money spent and an
additional handling fee. Although there are several sick funds, the social security system
reimburses them equally for medications. Competition between sick funds, therefore, is based on
the services they provide. Often, sick funds offer extra services as incentives, such as resort
vacations or home care teams.
The social security program is organized and managed at the governmental level. It decides the
reimbursement rates for different medical services and medications. As a result, out-of pocket
costs to patients are low, and patients have no real idea of the actual costs of their care. The
health insurance associations have no incentives to reduce health care spending, as they earn
money from their handling fee and by pleasing their customers, the patients. The providers of
medical services are paid fee-for-service. Under the current schedule of payments, it is thought
that technical services are heavily overpaid (relative to the cost or work involved in their
production), while “intellectual services” (consultations, counseling, prevention) are, in fact,
This complex interplay of patients, health insurance associations, medical service providers, and
the government makes it very difficult to negotiate new reimbursement systems that potentially
could reduce health care costs. Nobody in the system gains by reducing health care expenditures,
and there is a strong link between political parties and mutualities. Mutualities gain more
revenue if they spend more money, as their handling fee is a percentage of the money they
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 4 of 18
distribute. It is thus no surprise that the system is in heavy financial need; the expenditures
always exceed the social security budget and, in the end, the government pays the difference out
of general tax revenues.
The organization of medical services is almost completely private; no hospitals are run directly
by the government and physicians are usually not government employees. Belgian hospitals are
managed by universities, religious organizations, sick funds/mutualities (though rarely), or social
welfare organizations. Social welfare organizations are community-elected boards that provide
social services to the public. Most large cities have at least one social welfare hospital and one
hospital with a religious affiliation, a situation that adds to redundancy of the available technical
services. Hospitals run by social welfare committees are subject to the same reimbursement rules
as other private hospitals, but they must treat all patients, regardless of the patient’s ability to
pay. In addition, physicians in social welfare hospitals may not charge more than the fixed social
security prices for services. Therefore, citizens with low incomes are likely to be treated at these
Every city has a social welfare committee, which is managed and governed by politically
nominated people, but is not directly under the supervision of the town council or mayor.
Legally, the directors of social welfare committees are independent of the government; however,
because directors are elected to office, their actions are often thought to be politically motivated.
Board members are also not required to have a medical or managerial background. These social
welfare organizations are managed as private companies, and although they get a certain amount
of money from the city budget, the way this money is spent is at the committee’s discretion.
These groups are nonprofit in the sense that they are allowed to make a tax-free profit as long as
it is reinvested within the organization. However, many of these organizations own smaller
businesses, like hotels, and the monies reinvested into these hotels are sometimes used for
profitable or political ends. Many physicians are against this system, as a lot of money of the
health care system is being re-routed for alternative projects. In this way, the health care system
can be described as a public/private system.
The compulsory public insurance covers medical expenses to a varying degree (75–100%)
depending upon the type of care, the household’s total income, and the status of the patient
(disabled people have a higher reimbursement rate and a lower copayment). On a yearly basis,
the social security system and the providers of medical care (the hospitals, the physicians, and
the paramedical associations such as the union of physical therapists) negotiate reimbursement
rates for specific medical services, according to fixed fee schedules for sets of procedures.
Although physicians are free to charge the fees they want, most respect the fixed reimbursement
prices in order to remain competitive among physicians. Over the last few years, patient
responsibility for costs has been increasing and it had reached 17% in 2005, albeit with a limit
for the poor. In order to increase the patient share, reimbursements for services or medications
may be withheld or copayments may be increased without a corresponding increase in the
reimbursement for that intervention. In either case, the patient must pay the difference between
the amount reimbursed and the amount charged.
This insurance system provides good coverage for financially vulnerable populations and thereby
enables more equal access to care. Redistribution is the goal of social insurance; those who earn
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 5 of 18
more money contribute more in order to support those who have less. However, although those
with high incomes pay the most, they do not get as much as they paid in return when they need
it. Most of them do not complain that they pay too much (although this is also not very evident),
but they do complain because they do not get very good coverage when they need it. There is
thus some pressure on these people to have a second, private source of insurance to cover their
higher out-of-pocket payments.
In the end, this dissatisfaction might lead to the creation of two parallel systems and the gradual
breakdown of the redistribution system embodied in the principle of solidarity. Some political
parties already advocate a partial separation of the system into a small compulsory part,
organized by the state, and a voluntary part, to be organized by insurance companies. The
concern is that this could end full coverage for both the poor and high-risk individuals, because
private insurance companies may no longer accept them at the same premiums as the lower-risk
individuals. Another problem is that the system is currently compulsory, meaning that the
opportunity for cross-subsidization is greater. Should the system become partially voluntary,
fewer people would subscribe to the supplementary coverage, potentially reducing the
opportunity for higher-risk individuals to be cross-subsidized by lower-risk individuals. The
extent of government subsidy and the desirability of a compulsory system are two current
political issues in Belgium.
Most people obtain supplementary insurance for expenses not covered by public social security.
Most companies offer these insurance plans as an added benefit to their employees. This
voluntary form of insurance covers any patient copayments, home health care, hospital
amenities, fees for single room hospitalization, and any physician charges over the reimbursed
fee for that specific procedure. This system leads to distorted incentives in two ways. First,
expensive medical services for fully covered people are completely free, and thus, there are no
incentives to limit medical consumption. Second, because providers earn more money from
patients with supplementary insurance, they may respond by providing better care to those
individuals. This system risks the re-introduction of a dual standard for medical provision, with
one standard of care for the “haves” and another standard for the “have-nots.” Some fear that this
option of additional private insurance, although still limited, might initiate a breakdown of the
public reimbursement system because most doctors/hospitals will preferentially care for patients
with better insurance.
A key feature of the Belgian health system is that patients are free to choose their providers.
Patients can obtain specialist care whenever they want, and can even have second or third
opinions. As there is little communication between the different centers and specialists, this
might lead to duplicate investigation and testing. The free choice of the patient also leads to
some medical shopping and unnecessary use of specialist care. On the other hand, as prices are
fixed, competition between providers is based only on the standard of care both for medical and
non-medical aspects, which explains the high quality of care delivered and the high patient
satisfaction in Belgium.
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 6 of 18
The gross epidemiology of kidney disease and provision of care in Belgium
In 2001, with a population of more than 10 million inhabitants, Belgium had 8,572 chronic
kidney disease (CKD) stage 5D and 5T patients (GNFB, 2002; NBVN, 2002). CKD 5D
(dialysis) and CKD 5T (transplantation) are the new classifications for ESRD in the KDIGO
guidelines (Levey et al., 2005). This represents an ESRD prevalence rate of 836 per million
population (pmp), which is relatively high among ISHCOF countries (Dor et al., 2007). Of these
patients, 36% were treated in hospital-based hemodialysis centers (HBD centers) and 14% in
collective auto-dialysis centers (CAD centers). Five percent of ESRD patients used peritoneal
dialysis (PD), and 45% had a functional kidney transplant in 2001.
The Dutch-speaking and French-speaking parts of Belgium conduct ESRD surveillance
separately. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of prevalent ESRD patients in Dutch-speaking
Belgium increased from 3,624 to 5,252, a rather high increase of 44% (NBVN, 2002). For the
same period, the incidence increased from 120 to 170 pmp (+41%). The kidney transplantation
prevalence rate was 380 pmp in the year 2001, an increase of 78% over 6 years. From 1995 to
2000 in French-speaking Belgium, the number of dialysis patients increased by 18% (1,670 to
2,038) and the total number of ESRD patients increased by 20% (3,107 to 3,886) (GNFB, 2002).
In 2000, the incidence in the French-speaking areas was 167 pmp (GNFB, 2001).
Life expectancy at birth in Belgium is 82 years for women and 76 years for men. Belgium has an
increasing percentage of elderly (over 65 years) and very old (over 85 years) inhabitants; this
changing demographic creates the problem of a decreasing number of people contributing to
social security and an increasing number of people requiring funds (Pacolet et al., 2006).
Most dialysis centers operate during the day and for emergencies at night. Only three centers are
open for nightly dialysis. The care for all CKD stage 5D patients is organized in 57 hospital-
based facilities, which also have satellite units (CAD centers) outside the hospital location. These
CAD centers were originally planned for patients who can manage most of their dialysis
treatment by themselves, without medical supervision. However, in order to reduce costs, the
government implemented a moratorium preventing regional hospitals from opening new HBD
centers. This moratorium does not apply to larger hospitals. Therefore, most regional hospitals
now collaborate with larger hospitals to open CAD centers. As a result, the coverage of dialysis
centers in Belgium is high; the maximum distance between a dialysis center and a patient’s home
is estimated at less than 20 km. This situation leads indirectly to an increase in medical and
paramedical surveillance, resulting in a comparable standard of care in HBD and CAD centers.
Although the patient mix in HBD centers and CAD centers is becoming increasingly similar,
reimbursements for dialysis differ greatly between them. In HBD centers, dialysis is reimbursed
as a fee-for-service, treated as payment for the nephrologist, which is fixed and equal for all
dialysis centers. In addition, there is a hospitalization fee that is paid directly to the hospital. The
amount of this reimbursement is different for all centers, and depends on parameters like the
estimated severity or comorbidity of patients treated at that hospital. Therefore, the cost of a
dialysis treatment in an HBD center is different from center to center. In contrast, the
reimbursement for the CAD centers consists of a flat fee that is equal for all CAD centers. The
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 7 of 18
total cost of a dialysis treatment in a CAD center is substantially lower than the cost of HBD
The reimbursement of hospital-based dialysis treatment is further complicated by the fact that the
additional reimbursement fee for the hospital depends upon the percentage of “low-cost dialysis”
(i.e., PD and CAD) performed at that center. Most HBD centers want to cooperate with regional
and local hospitals for the organization of CAD centers, because this increases their
reimbursement. The exact rates are provided in our section on expenditures below.
In principle, all hospitals are private institutions. Each hospital has its own individual financial
responsibilities and none is actually funded or organized directly by the federal government.
However, at present, no dialysis units in Belgium are owned by private chains or managed care
There are no waiting lists for dialysis, placement of permanent vascular access for dialysis, or
other treatment procedures related to CKD stage 5D treatment. However, like most ISHCOF
countries, Belgium has waiting lists for transplantation due to a shortage of cadaveric donors.
Belgium has a cadaveric organ opt-out rule, which means that you must register not to be a
donor. About 50,000 Belgians are registered as opting out (2%). This rule has led to a relatively
high cadaveric donation rate (20 pmp) compared to the Netherlands (13 pmp) and shorter wait
times (time to transplant is more than 5 years in 11.1% of Belgian patients compared to 32.6% of
Dutch patients (Cohen & Persijn, 2005). The number of transplantations from live donors is low
Belgium has almost 22,000 primary care physicians (PCPs) and approximately 200 nephrologists
(Belgische Federale Overheidsdiensten, 2005). Not all the PCPs practice medicine, however, as
some of them are employed in administration. Compared to other ISHCOF countries (Ashton &
Marshall, 2007; Durand-Zaleski, Combe, & Lang, 2007; Hirth, 2007; Kleophas & Reichel, 2007;
Luño, 2007; Pontoriero, Pozzoni, Del Vecchio, & Locatelli, 2007; Nicholson & Roderick, 2007;
Wikström et al., 2007), Belgium’s doctor-to-patient ratio is average, amounting to just over 750
patients per practicing PCP and 46 ESRD patients per nephrologist. The Flemish government
limits the number of new practicing physicians through university entrance examinations,
whereas the Walloon government organizes a numerus clausus exam after three years of
university study after which only the highest ranked students may continue their education. The
number of nephrologists trained is dependent upon the available positions in the registered
training centers, which are based in university hospitals. Although there are no legislatively
imposed limitations, the social security system does not allow an unlimited number of
nephrologists in training. Each university hospital is “certified” or “accredited” for a specific
number of nephrologists in training that can become “accepted” specialists in nephrology.
Although the number of nephrologists is sufficient, the increasing prevalence of ESRD has
caused a relative shortage of experienced dialysis nurses. There is no official educational
program for dialysis nurses. Their training is organized in part by the individual centers and in
part by the Belgian Renal Nursing Association. Most centers require dialysis nurses to follow
these courses during the first years of practice.
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 8 of 18
The salaries for nurses and PCPs are about average for ISHCOF countries (data not shown). The
salaries of all nurses are defined according to nationally determined standards and are equal for
all nurses regardless of their specific occupation (e.g., intensive care nurse or dialysis nurse).
PCP salaries are completely funded by fee-for-service. This payment structure may negatively
affect referral patterns for ESRD patients because referrals diminish the possibility of further
consultations, and thus income, for the PCP.
Although published income data for nephrologists does not exist in Belgium, indirect
communication with nephrologist colleagues suggests that they earn relatively high salaries in
Belgium. At about €150,000–200,000 (US$166,852–222,469; PPP 2001) per year nephrologists’
incomes in Belgium are similar to those in Australia (Harris, 2007) and Canada (Manns,
Mendelssohn, & Taub, 2007) and higher than all other ISHCOF countries, after adjustment for
purchasing power parity (data not shown). However, tax rates in Belgium are high, reaching over
55% for people at this level of income.
Nephrologists’ salaries differ according to the center. In hospitals, salaries are used to partially
cover dialysis unit expenses. Hospital-based nephrologists pay for the use of hospital rooms,
personnel, and other hospital services. Often, because dialysis is a well-reimbursed medical
service, nephrologists’ salaries are used to “correct” deficits in other departments. For example,
care for diabetic patients is organized by diabetes teams that are very poorly financed. In most
hospitals, the income of the diabetes specialist (usually an endocrinologist) is partly sponsored
by a contribution from the nephrology department. In some hospitals, the nephrologists are in a
pool with the other internal subspecialties, and incomes are redistributed accordingly. Although
this redistribution seemingly diminishes the nephrologists’ salaries, it is an indirect benefit,
because including specialists on the team attracts more patients to the hospital. For this reason,
the direct impact of the fee-for-service regulation on nephrologist income is somewhat
dampened, although still present.
In Belgium, part of the reimbursement goes directly to the hospital and part of the reimbursement
goes to the physician. The hospitals are mostly reimbursed through lump sums awarded for
specific services, which must cover any service-specific staff, materials, and rent of the facility.
Doctors, on the other hand, are paid on a fee-for-service basis. Thus, for the hospital, more
patients mean higher turnover and throughput, more work, and thus higher personnel and other
costs with no additional revenue received. For doctors, more patients yield additional income,
but require more personnel (e.g., nursing) and time. In addition, for consultation and technical
services, such as radiology, labs, and gastroscopy, there is only fee-for-service to the physician,
not to the hospital. To compensate the hospital, most physicians working in the hospital (and not
in private practice) share part of their fee with the hospital. In the case of dialysis, for example,
the nephrologist is reimbursed for the act of dialysis. This sum includes disposables, water
treatment, and the dialysis machine, which, in principle, should be procured and paid for by the
nephrologist. In most centers, hospitals provide all the “hardware,” and the nephrologist shares
part of his fee with the hospital in return. In some centers, all the money goes to the hospital and
nephrologists are paid a salary.
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 9 of 18
The net income of nephrologists has probably increased at a lower rate than inflation, whereas, in
contrast, the workload has increased. This is caused by a special mechanism introduced 2 years
ago whereby, national, pre-defined total budget limits for each specialty cannot be exceeded. In
practice, this implies that once a certain number of dialysis sessions have been exceeded, the
reimbursement per treatment goes down, with net income held constant. Up to now, this
mechanism has not led Belgian nephrologists to ration care, but in light of the increasing
prevalence of patients, some problems are likely if this regulation is not changed. Typically,
because of the skewed reimbursement system that pays more highly for technical procedures
than for evaluation and diagnosis, some of the revenues of nephrology are redistributed to other
services, like diabetes teams. The amount of this redistribution and the final goal of this money
are different in all hospitals and units, and are negotiated by all the involved partners. As a
diabetologist attracts a lot of diabetics, and thus potential ESRD patients, the link is clear. In
addition, you need to have a certified diabetologist to get reimbursement for home glycemia
control for your patients. The growing attention to this type of “integrated team” suggests that
younger nephrologists/physicians are more likely to accept this redistribution now than they were
in the past, when the gap between the income of the nephrologist and other staff members (e.g.,
the geriatric internist) was quite substantial.
Belgium spent 9% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on health care expenditures in 2001,
which was €2,291 (US$2,548; PPP 2001) per inhabitant (Belgische Vereniging van
Verzekerings-organismen, 2004). This represents the median health care expenditure for the
ISHCOF countries and is well below U.S. health care spending (about 13.9% of its GDP)
(OECD, 2004). Unlike some other countries, Belgium finances health care entirely through
public funding, which is distributed by the health insurance associations (sick funds) to their
In 1999, Belgium spent 1.8% of its health care budget on ESRD treatment, yet ESRD patients
represented only 0.04% of the population (Belgische Vereniging van Verzekeringsorganismen,
2005; Belgische Federale Overheidsdiensten, 2005). For a hemodialysis (HD) patient in
Belgium, the social security fund pays a mean of €44,000 per year (US$48,943; PPP 2001) for
only the technical act of dialysis (Belgische Federale Overheidsdiensten, 2005). For a sample of
36 patients, we have calculated the median real cost of a HD patient at our university hospital
(HBD center) over 1 year, and found a total sum of €53,000 (US$58,954; PPP 2001) for strictly
dialysis-related costs, €10,000 (US$10,638; PPP 1999) for medication, €6,600 (US$7,341; PPP
2001) for hospitalization, €6,500 (US$7,230; PPP 2001) for technical investigations (labs and
diagnostic tests), and €1,900 (US$2,113; PPP 2001) for extra supplies such as dressings and
orthotics (see Table 1). Therefore, the total annual expenditure for a hemodialysis patient in
Belgium was €78,000 (US$86,763; PPP 2001) (personal unpublished data, Raymond Vanholder,
University Hospital Ghent, 2001).
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 10 of 18
The quality of dialysis care may be reduced by the fixed fee reimbursement, which must cover
all dialysis-related expenses regardless of the duration of the session, the use of biocompatible
membranes, or the use of hemodiafiltration. No additional revenue is received for costly steps to
improve quality, like hemofiltration or high flux membranes. Thus, improving the quality of care
through the introduction of more sophisticated and more expensive techniques leads to decreased
profits for the hospital and the nephrologist. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that the lack of
additional reimbursement for high-quality dialysis techniques reduces the actual quality of care
delivered. In fact, the use of low-quality but cheap cuprophane membranes has been nearly
abandoned in Belgium, and most centers use high flux dialysis or on-line hemodiafiltration for at
least some of their patients. This is partly induced by competition between centers, the control of
peers in local quality groups, and the already high reimbursement for dialysis.
Table 1. Annual expenditures per dialysis patient in Belgium, by modality, 2001
Hemodialysis center type Peritoneal
Cost category Hospital (€) CAD (€) dialysis (€)
Dialysis 53,000 30,000 32,000
Medications 10,000 10,000 5,500
Hospitalizations 6,600 6,600 5,500
Labs/Diagnostics 6,500 6,500 2,000
Extra supplies 1,900 1,900 -
Total 78,000 55,000 45,000
Peritoneal dialysis is reimbursed at a rate of about €625 per week (US$695; PPP 2001) for
continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis (CAPD) and €725 per week (US$806; PPP 2001) for
automated peritoneal dialysis (APD). These sums are paid directly to the hospital and cover all
treatment-related expenses, such as dialysates, but also disinfection caps, disinfection fluids,
paper towels, and even electricity for APD. When a patient on PD is hospitalized, the
reimbursement is temporarily discarded. When the PD patient needs assistance at home from a
private nurse to perform his exchanges, an additional fee of €175 per week (US$195; PPP 2001)
At our center, the yearly median cost of a PD patient was found to be €45,000 (US$50,056; PPP
2001) (Table 1). The cost of medications differs greatly for PD and HD patients due to the lower
need for erythropoietin (EPO) and anticoagulants in PD patients. These estimates are
substantially lower than those for patients on other modalities. Admittedly, the case mix of
patients may differ to some extent between modalities, without accounting for the above-
mentioned large differences.
The total cost of a CAD center patient can be estimated at about €55,000 per year (US$61,179;
PPP 2001) (Table 1). Costs in CAD centers differ from those in HBD centers only in the
reimbursement for actual dialysis. This explains why the government is trying to increase the
number of patients treated at CAD centers or on PD. Efforts to encourage low-cost options
include the moratorium on HBD centers in favor of CAD centers.
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 11 of 18
As the costs for transplant patients are highly dependent on time elapsed since transplant
(Laupacis et al., 1996), the costs of transplant patients at various stages were estimated in Table
2. The cost of a new, uncomplicated kidney transplant is estimated at about €24,356 (US$27,092;
PPP 2001) for the transplant procedure (all inclusive) and an average of €12,810 (US$14,249;
PPP 2001) for the following year (unpublished data, doctoral thesis Patrick Peeters, University
Hospital Ghent, in preparation).
Table 2. Annual expenditures for renal transplantation patients in Belgium, 2001
First year Subsequent
Cost category Operation (€) post-op (€) years (€)
Hospitalization 6,611 6,732 -
HLA typing 456 - -
Donor stabilization 877 - -
Operation 1,153 - -
Logistical overhead 3,768 - -
Medications 11,491 5,883 5,883
Physician visits - 195 195
Total 24,356* 12,810* 6,078
* Doctoral thesis, Patrick Peeters, University Hospital Ghent, in preparation.
To estimate the cost for a renal transplant operation, patients were assumed to require two
intensive care unit days (€780) and 17 standard care hospitalization days at €343 per day
(OECD, 2005), which sums to €6,611 (US$7,353; PPP 2001) for the transplant procedure. Organ
procurement is reimbursed as a flat rate per transplanted organ; however the reimbursement for
stabilization of the donor is paid to the donating hospital, while that for the transplantation
operation is paid to the transplanting center. The cost of anti-rejection medications and
antibiotics (€11,491 or US$12,782; PPP 2001), nearly doubles the total cost of the transplant
operation. In sum, an uncomplicated transplant procedure costs around €24,356 (US$27,072;
For a follow-up year of a stable transplant patient, the cost of drugs and physician visits were
calculated (Table 2). When mycophenolate or azathioprine, methylprednisolone, and a
calcineurin inhibitor are used for 1 year, the cost amounts to €5,883 (US$6,543; PPP 2001). 1
Nephrologist visits typically cost €30 per visit; assuming stable transplant patients visit their
nephrologists once every 8 weeks, these visits would cost €195 (US$217; PPP 2001) per year.
Therefore, in an uncomplicated year, care for a patient who has had a transplant for over 1 year
costs roughly €6,078 (US$6,761; PPP 2001). However, in the first year after transplantation, the
mean costs are higher since episodes of rejection, infection and surgical complications are
Enough Medrol for 80 days of treatment costs €31.5. Enough Cellcept for 50 days of treatment costs €405.
Azathioprine for 100 days of treatment costs €33.33 and 25 days of treatment with Neoral (cyclosporine) costs
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 12 of 18
common in this period. Considering these costs, a patient in the first year post-transplant has an
annual expenditure of roughly €12,810 (US$14,249; PPP 2001).
To use the point-prevalent count of patients as our weights in the calculation of annual
expenditure per ESRD patient, we need an estimate of the year of transplantation, rather than the
year after transplantation. Assuming that each transplant procedure occurs in the middle of the
year, each patient accrues costs for 6 months as a dialysis patient and 6 months as a transplant
patient. To estimate the cost for these 6 months of dialysis, the modality specific expenditures
from Table 1 were weighted by the percentage of patients receiving HBD, CAD, and PD and
then divided in half to account for only half the year. For the transplant component, recently
transplanted patients were assumed to be more costly just after their operations than they are in
the latter part of their first year post-transplant; therefore, the first 6 months post-transplant
account for 75% of the first year transplant cost, or €9,608 (US$10,687; PPP 2001). Adding the
half year of dialysis and the half year post-transplant to the cost of the transplant operation, we
obtain a total cost of €68,502 (US$76,198; PPP 2001) in the year of transplant (Table 3).
Weighting each modality expenditure by the percentage of patients using that modality, the total
expenditure per ESRD patient in Belgium is €45,023 (US$50,081; PPP 2001).
Table 3. Annual expenditures per ESRD patient in Belgium, 2001
Annual expenditure per patient
Not weighted Weighted weighted
Modality Weight (€) (€) (USD, PPP)
HD 0.5 71,790 35,895 39,927
PD 0.05 45,000 2,250 2,503
Year of transplant 0.02 68,502 1,370 1,524
Stable transplant 0.43 12,810 5,508 6,127
Total 1.00 45,023 50,081
PPP = 0.898 for Belgium, 2001 (OECD, 2005)
Specific aspects of treatment and financing
All registered medications are reimbursed at different levels. Life-saving medications such as
insulin (class A) are completely reimbursed. Other medications with proven benefit (class B) are
reimbursed at 75–90%, according to the patient’s social status and income level. Patients are
responsible for paying the demotivation fee (copayment), which is intended to discourage
ineffective use of medications (e.g., over-the-counter pain killers and antibiotics). However, the
cumulative amount of the demotivation fee cannot exceed €250 per year (US$278; PPP 2001) for
persons with low incomes. For some medications (class Bf), permission for reimbursement has
to be obtained from an advisory physician from the sick fund. The criteria for reimbursement for
these medications are well defined and issued by the social security system. Most class Bf
medications are quite expensive, which is the reason the government wants to control their use.
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 13 of 18
Medications with only limited benefit are not reimbursed at all (class C).The amount paid for
class C medications is not included in the maximum cumulative demotivation fee.
All medications directly related to ESRD, including EPO and anti-rejection drugs for transplant
patients, are covered entirely by social security. Nephrologists are free to prescribe as much EPO
as they deem necessary and there are no target levels of hemoglobin or hematocrit. EPO is also
reimbursed for CKD stages 3 and 4 patients if their clearance is below 45 ml/min and if their
hematocrit is below 35%. However, permission to distribute EPO is strictly limited to
nephrologists and hospital pharmacies with supervising nephrologists. This rule was mainly
introduced to reduce the number of late referrals.
Active vitamin D is almost completely reimbursed; only a small demotivation fee is paid by the
patient. Intravenous active vitamin D is not reimbursed by Social Security in Belgium; it can
only be administered in special cases in the form of compassionate use samples provided by drug
There are no additional fees for the intravenous or subcutaneous administration of drugs during
dialysis or for “additional nursing” such as wound dressings. However, for most dressings (e.g.,
hydrogels), bandages, and ointments for wound care, reimbursement is limited. As most of these
are class C, such costs can be substantial for some patients. There is no special regulation for
ESRD patients. They pay the same demotivation fee as other patients with the same income level
and social status.
Permanent tunneled catheters are not reimbursed by the social security system. Some dialysis
centers cover this cost themselves, while others bill it to the patient.
Hospitalization costs are completely covered by social security, with the exception of “hotel
costs,” which are paid by the patient. These hotel costs are a fixed daily rate that the hospital asks
to cover catering and non-medical supplies such as telephones and televisions for patients. In
most hospitals, the hotel costs depend on the service provided—for example, patients who want a
single room or who have special requirements regarding food (except medically indicated dietary
measures) incur higher costs. For renal transplant patients, hotel costs are often the largest part of
their hospital bill after transplantation. During hospitalization, patients also pay a fixed
contribution per day for medications. This amount is the same for all hospitalized patients in
Belgium, regardless of the medications received. In addition, the hospitals are free to charge
extra costs for non-reimbursed medications (class C) and medical supplies. For instance, most
single use disposables for laparoscopy are not reimbursed by social security and hospitals can
bill them to the patient.
Belgium has a relatively high prevalence of kidney transplantation. Seven hospitals perform this
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 14 of 18
To find cadaveric organ donors, Belgium cooperates with the Eurotransplant International
Foundation. In Belgium there is an opting-out system, whereby brain-dead patients are
considered willing to donate unless they have made a special appeal during their lifetime.
Although permission of the relatives is not theoretically necessary, all hospitals inform the
family and do not remove organs if the family objects. The social security system encourages
cadaveric donor programs by providing financial support to hospitals that procure organs for the
pool. Eurotransplant also reimburses procuring hospitals. Unfortunately, this financial support is
paid as a fixed amount per transplanted organ. This practice means that the hospital harvesting
the organs only gets money if the organs are actually transplanted, which potentially could lead
to the use of sub-optimal organs. Both the opting-out formula and the financial involvement of
the procuring hospitals may contribute to the high incidence and prevalence of cadaveric
transplantation in Belgium. Despite the increasing cadaveric donation and the initiation of living
relative donation, the number of ESRD patients on the waiting list is increasing exponentially
due to the increasing prevalence of ESRD.
The cost of transplantation is covered completely by social security with a low demotivation fee.
Transplant patients spend a mean of 15–20 days in the hospital for recovery, more days than in
any other ISHCOF country (data not shown). After discharge, patients are seen as outpatients
two times per week during the first 3 months. After 3 months, the frequency decreases to once
every 6–8 weeks for stable transplants. These consultations are reimbursed nearly completely by
the social security system.
All anti-rejection medications, including the newer induction therapies, are reimbursed
completely for all transplanted patients. Some drugs, like acyclovir and peroral gancyclovir, are
class Bf, and permission for reimbursement must be obtained from the social security system.
However, this is merely a formality; in nearly all cases, the drugs are completely reimbursed.
Because dialysis is reimbursed as a fixed sum, the duration and type of dialysis is at the
discretion of the attending nephrologists. Although longer dialysis may lead to higher costs
without additional reimbursement, thereby decreasing profit, the average HD treatment in
Belgium is relatively long, lasting 3.8 h, according to DOPPS II data.
There is no national standard for Kt/V level in Belgium, but the average is 1.3 eKt/V. The only
limitation for dialysis dose is that patients cannot have more than three dialysis sessions
reimbursed per week.
There is no required nurse/patient ratio in Belgium. As reimbursement is a flat fee, increasing the
nurse/patient ratio reduces profit for the center. There is a consensus among Belgian
nephrologists that one nurse should be employed per 500 dialysis sessions/year, resulting in
about one nurse for every four patients. There is no reimbursement for other paramedical care,
like psychological care, and only a few centers have a psychologist at their disposal, although it
is clear from DOPPS results that psychological well being is an important factor in survival
(Lopes et al., 2004).
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 15 of 18
Renal replacement therapy is, in principle, completely reimbursed to the patient by the third-
payer system. The only exception is transportation to the dialysis center, which is reimbursed by
the social security system at only a very low level. To reduce the costs, most health insurance
associations organize their own transport service at no charge to members. However, shuttle
services are often centrally organized and collective, which limits the ability of providers to
lengthen dialysis sessions according to the needs of individual patients (e.g., interdialytic weight
gain, or the need for additional investigations).
Patients still have to buy their own oral medications, and the normal reimbursement rules apply;
they are reimbursed at a rate of 75–100%, depending on the patient’s income and the class of
The penetration of PD is low in Belgium (only 6% of ESRD patients and 10% of all dialysis
patients). This is at least partly due to the problematic reimbursement regulation for PD. The
reimbursement fee is paid as a fixed lump sum (per patient per week) directly to the hospital. In
principle, this sum does not cover the fee for the nephrologist, so there is no financial reward for
the nephrologist when a patient is on PD. In addition, the amount of the fixed fee is barely
sufficient to cover all the real expenses, so profit is minimal for the hospital; under certain
conditions (e.g., high volume APD, or a long hospitalization), the hospital’s balance becomes
negative. PD can only be profitable in large centers with a large pool of PD patients, where the
fixed overhead costs, such as those for nurses and housing, can be spread over a larger number of
patients. As a result, the PD population is concentrated in larger centers.
Trends and Outcomes
Certain demographic characteristics have a slight association with the incidence of ESRD.
Certain regions have a high prevalence of analgesic nephropathy, which is related to the
industrial character of these regions (GNFB, 2001, 2002). These regions have the highest
prevalence of ESRD, in part because of the aging population. The mean age of HD patients has
increased from 64 years in 1993 to 69 years in 2002. In general, the increase in ESRD prevalence
is mostly due to an increase in renovascular and diabetic kidney disease. The prevalence of
ESRD due to glomerulonephritis, for example, has been nearly stable over the last 5 years.
The restriction on the HBD centers has led to an increase in the CAD population, and to a lesser
degree to an increase of PD.
The mean age at start of dialysis is substantially higher in Belgium compared to the Netherlands,
despite the fact that in principle, the population characteristics of these two countries do not
differ. Belgium also has a much higher acceptance rate than the Netherlands (170 pmp and 100
pmp, respectively), and a higher prevalence (900 pmp and 650 pmp, respectively), which
suggests that Belgium’s liberal reimbursement enables all medically suitable patients to be
dialyzed, whereas the Netherlands probably has some hidden rationing. Despite these
differences, outcomes are similar in both countries, with a median survival of ±50 months
(Nierstichting Nederland, 2006).
Van Biesen, Lameire, Peeters, & Vanholder, 2007 Page 16 of 18
Socioeconomic status is moderately negatively associated with the cost of ESRD. It appears that
the cost for renal replacement therapy is higher in the lower-income South of Belgium than in the
higher-income North. Reimbursements for dialysis are comparable in both parts of the country;
therefore, this difference is probably attributable to a difference in hospitalization rates and the
use of technical investigations (Persmededeling Vlaams Artsensyndicaat, 2001). In part, this
could be explained by the lower average income in the South (Kenniscentrum statistiek, 2005),
which results in longer hospitalizations; Because home care is quite expensive and its costs are
reimbursed at a very limited level, staying in the hospital for aftercare is more economical for
Although reimbursement for renal replacement therapy is high, ESRD patients are still
responsible for copayments. However, individual patients, or groups of patients (e.g., the very
old or very poor), who cannot make the payments are not refused dialysis care. There is
increasing pressure on the health care budget, particularly for renal replacement therapy, which
has led to financial punishments for nephrologists who exceed budgets. This, together with the
exponential growth of the ESRD population, might lead to an unsanctioned, but informal
rationing of care.
Late referral is problematic in Belgium, partly because the fee-for-service system makes
physicians hesitant to refer patients to other specialists for fear of losing business. In addition,
the high reimbursement for technical activities (like dialysis) and the low reimbursement for
intellectual activities (prevention, counseling) limit nephrologist interest in preventing the
progression of chronic kidney disease. Renal and general practitioner societies are working to
change these views; however, their campaigns are typically privately funded and not national
Belgium’s total health care expenditure as a percentage of GDP (9%) is average among ISHCOF
countries. Yet, the liberal ESRD reimbursement system constitutes 1.8% of total health care
expenditure, one of the highest percentages among ISHCOF countries and comparable to
Germany (Kleophas & Reichel, 2007) and the United States (Hirth, 2007). The reimbursement
system is disadvantageous for PD, which is reflected in its low penetration. In general, patient
satisfaction is high (FOD Economie, 1998) and outcomes are comparable with surrounding
Nevertheless, the quality of delivered care could still improve if part of the high reimbursement
for technical activities was put toward prevention.
The International Study of Health Care Organization and Financing is supported by the Arbor
Research Collaborative for Health. The Dialysis Outcomes and Practice Patterns Study is
supported by research grants from Amgen and Kirin without restrictions on publications.
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